As teams start to arrive in Europe there has been a final flurry of ‘competitive’ activity between the various participants. As usual, the level of the team (and in some cases personal relationships between people, see Germany/Lozano) determines the level of the ‘friendly’ match opponent. So while Cameroon (Poland), Egypt (Monza), Japan (Padova) are based near club teams practicing and playing scrimmages against teams who are mostly not trying, USA after seven weeks of training gets to land directly in Italy to play against the hosts for their final preparation.
Of the teams in the lower half (ie teams whose goal is to get out of the first round), the action was mostly in Innsbruck, where next years European Championhips host put on a preparation tournament for Iran, China and Puerto Rico. After a mostly unsuccessful summer, including losing their World League place, China managed a couple of what must be confidence boosting wins against Iran and Austria. To the (presumable) delight of the Australian contingent Puerto Rico lost twice to Iran and Austria and obviously played way below their capabilities, especially considering Austria had just lost twice to Tunisia. Czech Republic also continued their low key, but mostly smooth, preparation with three more matches at home, this time against Canada. That they were able to win all three matches 3-0 is something of a surprise, even allowing for the timing, the fact that they were only friendly matches and that Canada had just arrived after a long flight. One of the highlights of the first round might well be the Czech Republic – France match that could have big repercussions for later in the tournament. Canada, being the group of death with Germany, Poland and Serbia, must still have some work to do.
At the pointy end of the tournament, Brazil landed first in Germany for three games there. Germany surprised by winning the first match in five sets (and here, check the photo of Bernardinho in cast), but couldn’t sustain that in the second match, losing 1-3 (and here). They obviously had a significantly improved performance from their last matches against Russia. Brazil won’t be happy to lose. Ever. The third match will be interesting.
Fcrane hosted a tournament including Argentina, Spain and Bulgaria. Despite the return of Antiga, for the first time this season, and Pujols, for the first time in over a year, France managed to lose to Spain (no mean feat judging by some other results this summer) but beat Bulgaria in the last match. Bulgaria won the tournament and have had a good and consistent preparation. They will have a chance to play for a medal. France is one of the big question marks. They never seem to have the best team, but often perform better than even experts predict (see World Championships 2002, European Championships 2009). Maybe experts should expect them to be better by now.
Cuba are travelling around Europe for their final preparation. In Serbia, they lost twice, while in Poland, they won one and lost one. Given that the matches were played at the Polish training centre and not in front of the standard 8000 spectators, my gut feeling is not to read too much into the results. But then that is my gut feeling from all of these matches…
My final pick… same as my original pick… Brazil.